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Bianchi (ESA): “Launching a satellite will cost half”

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Bianchi (ESA): “Launching a satellite will cost half”

It is more powerful and therefore cheaper, Vega C, the European carrier with an Italian soul that took off for the first time on July 13 for the maiden flight which proved to be a success. Stefano Bianchi, Head of Flight Programs of the European Space Agency, explains to Italian tech the advantages of the new “light” carrier, born in the Avio plants in Colleferro, in the province of Rome, to meet the needs of the market. The novelty is power and flexibility: with the new upper stage, it will be able to bring more satellites into orbit on more orbits. At half the cost for the clients.

The technology for launching several satellites together on the Vega rocket is Italian

antonio lo campo

Ten years after Vega’s maiden flight, a new vector for space is launched. What sensations?
“Fervor and a remarkable tension, the first flight had been a ten-year development adventure, something extraordinary. Now we are back on a qualifying flight, it is always a great test, the first time we try everything together, with a fantastic team. They worked day and night and there was a lot of anticipation, mixed with last minute doubts that translate into more studies. Although we have done 20 flights before, every flight is always an emotion, you never have the absolute security, something can always happen “.

Let’s start with that “C”. Consolidation. What does it mean?
“We consolidate what we have achieved with Vega, trying to radically improve performance, costs, systems and processes. The P80 engine has become P120, Zefiro23 is now Zefiro40, Avum is Avum +, same structure by improving each engine”.

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The case

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What are the new elements? Starting with the P120C engine, the first stage that will give the thrust for take-off.
“P120C is the largest monolithic engine in existence today, with a carbon fiber structure, 143 tons of solid propellant. And it is also used as a side booster of Ariane 6 (the new Arianegroup launcher that will debut in 2023 ndr), which will bring the constellation Kuiper into orbit. The P120C is the basis of both launchers, a key element: producing more engines also reduces costs “.


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He referred to Avum +, the fourth and last stage. What has changed? What can he do?
“Essentially we changed the tanks, which were Russian, now they are European. We have increased the propellant. Now we can carry out up to seven ignitions compared to the previous five. The ignitions are used to be flexible, they allow you to change orbit. You make a” shot. “, Then you stay on a ballistic trajectory, then another” shot “to correct the orbit and release the satellite. Then a third and go up or down, to position satellites on different orbits. Then a final ignition for the deorbit, is precipitated so as not to leave an unused stage in orbit. Another important thing: Vega C will bring Space rider into orbit, an autonomous orbital laboratory that goes into orbit and then comes back down. And it is an integrated system, because Avum + will be the orbital engine of the shuttle. A program with a great Italian contribution “.

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Why a new launcher? What needs does it meet?
“First of all we will be more competitive, with more performance and flexibility for a diversified market and different loads. Vega had already launched 53 satellites from 1 to 250 kilograms with the SMS dispenser. We will use it with Vega C to try to load as much as possible, sell the service to more customers and reduce the cost. The upper stage, Avum +, allows us to be very flexible. Also with this first mission we go up to almost 6,000 km to bring the scientific satellite Lares 2 of the Italian Space Agency into orbit, then we go down to release the cubesats “.

More power and greater load volume, what performance are we talking about?
“The volume of the spinner is about double, the load capacity is 2,200 kilos in low orbit compared to the 1,450 kilos of Vega. The cost per kilo to bring into orbit is reduced by more than 50% compared to Vega. The cost absolute depends a lot on the type of orbit, mission and fill “.

Could it also be used to bring satellite constellations into orbit?
“For many constellations Ariane 6 is more convenient, because it is more powerful, it can carry more satellites with fewer launches: the more I put, the less I spend, according to the logic we said. If you have 3,000, like the Kuiper constellation of Amazon, the choice falls on Ariane 6. For smaller satellite constellations you can use Vega C, it depends on the size of the satellites and the type. For example we are studying the use of Vega C for the Italian constellation Iris for Earth observation. to replace one or more satellites that are damaged or out of order, to prevent problems in a constellation. These missions can be conducted with Vega C. “

When will Vega C go into service?
Immediately: we already have customers waiting for us. The first flight is expected by the end of 2022, as quickly as possible. Followed by five in 2023, then four in 2024 and four the following year.

Is it a strategic asset for Italy too, for access to space?
It is first of all a European strategic asset, we have seen what happened with Soyuz, which withdrew service from Kourou (and Russia canceled the launch of satellites of the OneWeb constellation in March, after the invasion of Ukraine ndr). The independence of access to space is strategic. Of course Italy has the ability to build a rocket propulsion system and key elements that few countries have.

What is the Italian contribution to the launchers program?
The investment on Vega C is about 300 million, half of which are Italian, half from all other countries other than France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, in all 12. The investment in the P120 concerns the Italian contribution to Ariane 6, a investment of about 500 million, Italy contributes about 50%, together with France, for Vega and Ariane 6.

From Ukraine comes the engine of Avum +, the war has somehow undermined the certainty of supplies in the long term. You are therefore accelerating the development of Vega E (where “E” stands for Evolution). What technologies are we talking about? And when?
The first flight of Vega E is expected in 2026. The new rocket will have a cryogenic stage that will replace Zefiro 9 and Avum +, with an increase in performance. It is the first step for Avio to acquire liquid propulsion technology that will make us completely independent from this point of view. We are testing the new engine, the M10, in Sardinia, on oxygen and methane. With Ukraine, the aspect is critical and strategic. The collaboration with them continues and we still have sufficient stock for upcoming Vega C flights.

Vega C took off when in Italy it was 13.13 on 13 July. You are not superstitious …
We are very superstitious, Eduardo used to say that being superstitious is ignorant but not being superstitious is bad (laughs). I realized after 13.13 in Italy. Here in Kourou it was 8.13 in the morning. However, Vega’s predecessor took off on February 13 ten years ago. And it has brought well.

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